Graduate degrees are either professional or research oriented. Professional degrees, at the master’s level, provide the skills and theoretical knowledge necessary to advance in a career. This is often times an individual’s final degree. A research-oriented master’s program is typically designed to prepare a student for entrance into a doctoral program. Master’s programs typically are completed within two years and require a thesis, however there are also accelerated programs such as an MSW. In addition, other programs exist that require more than the usual 36 hour program suchas a master’s in counseling that may consist of 60 hours.

The most common professional doctoral programs lead to an M.D. (Doctor of Medicine) and J.D. (Doctor of Jurisprudence) for the practice of medicine and law. Others, although not devoid of research, include the Ed.D. (Doctor of Education), PsyD (Doctor of Psychology), and PharmD. (Doctor of Pharmacology). The Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy) provides the training and skills to conduct research. With the Ph.D., many options exist in various careers, including teaching and research at a college or university. A doctorate typically takes about 4 to 6 years to complete and consists of a dissertation. 

Making a Decision to Attend
The decision to attend graduate school is one of commitment. When accepted to a program, it is expected that you will complete it, otherwise it reflects badly on the department, as well as the institution. This is the reason for an institution’s selectivity and competitiveness in the admission’s process.

Following are some common issues that people often struggle with when making the decision.

What are your career goals? In order to reach these goals, is an advanced degree necessary? If so, is a master’s sufficient or is a doctorate necessary? You must research the career field to answer these questions. Resources include the Career Services office, faculty, and professionals in the field.

What are your reasons for contemplating graduate school? Attending graduate school because you are unsure of what you would like to do once you complete a bachelor’s is not a sufficient reason to further your education. If you attend based on this idea, you may find that the program you selected does not carry with it enough interest to invest the time and money necessary to continue. If you begin a program and decide to drop out, you are taking a risk of possibly not being accepted into another graduate program in the future. Once accepted, students are expected to complete the program, and if you have dropped out once, another institution may ask, “What would prevent him/her from dropping out again?”

Will it be easier to find employment and earn a higher salary? It depends. Certain positions require advanced degrees. Others may not, however it may give you an extra edge over others in consideration for employment or promotion.

Should you take a break after completing your bachelor’s? Some people fear that if they postpone graduate school that they may loose interest and never attend. It differs for each individual, however it seems as though whatever field you go into, lifelong learning is valued. Some employers even encourage continuing your education and offer tuition assistance. Some graduate programs require experience prior to being eligible to apply. One example is executive MBA programs. In addition, some students find themselves missing the educational environment and enjoyment of learning even when they swore they would never contemplate graduate school.

Is it necessary to complete a master’s before you can begin a doctoral program? Not necessarily. While some doctoral programs require applicants to hold a master’s degree, others accept students right out of an undergraduate program. These programs tend to be more competitive.

Selecting a Graduate School/Program
Once you have made the decision to attend graduate school, the next crucial step is researching various institutions and their programs of study to determine their compatibility with your needs and personal attributes. Here are some factors to consider when selecting a program:

Does it fit your lifestyle? You want to make certain that your personal or work obligations will not interfere with the requirements of the program that you select. Also, what is your geographic preference? This may limit or broaden your options.

Many programs require that you enroll as a full-time student, which in contrast to an undergraduate program, consists of a nine-hour load. Others may be more flexible.

Some disciplines, such as social work and counseling, require a practicum or internship. They may require a full-time placement, a semester or yearlong commitment, and/or a specified number of hours completed.

Should you attend a private or public institution? There are many factors that exist when answering this question. Are you interested in a large research institution? Do you prefer the atmosphere of a smaller institution, which may provide greater personal attention? What is the faculty-student ratio and reputation of the program?

You may also want to consider the cost to attend. Tuition costs at public institutions are often considerably lower than that of private institutions. Will your program, upon completion, provide the means to pay off possible accrued loans? Perhaps you feel the quality of education received from a private institution far exceeds that of a public. Consider the cost of living in a particular location. Also, keep in mind that financial assistance is a possibility through grants, fellowships, and scholarships.

How competitive is the program for which you are applying? What are the demographics of current students in relation to graduate admissions test scores, GPAs, accomplishments, extracurricular activities, and affiliations? Is the institution committed to women, minorities, and/or people with disabilities?

Is it best to select another institution other than that in which you received your bachelor’s? This question is up for debate. This notion of attending a different institution arose from the belief that a student will benefit from exposure to various theoretical orientations and teaching methods. If you plan to pursue a doctorate upon completion of a master’s, you may want to consider attending another institution. Again, it depends. People have their own biases related to this question in both academic and corporate or organizational environment.

These are some of the major points, however you may have others to consider. To further explore these and other factors when selecting a program, seek the advice and guidance of faculty and Career Service staff.

Application Process
It is never too early to begin gaining information about the application process. Learning about the process before completing your bachelor’s may help you to take the appropriate coursework necessary for entrance. In addition, you will learn of the deadlines that exist to submit all of your credentials. In fact, early contact with a graduate school and building relationships with faculty members, prior to applying, may build a stronger case for your acceptance in the selection process into the program. Below are factors to consider?

Do you need to complete your bachelor’s prior to applying to graduate school? No. You may apply to a program in your senior year, which if accepted, will admit you based on the contingency that you maintain the same level of academic progress and complete the degree prior to the start of the program.

Do not limit yourself to applying to only one institution. After careful research of various programs, select about three or so that you would consider attending if accepted. Do this, not necessarily because your first choice will not accept you, but also because you never know what life circumstances might come your way in which one institution becomes more feasible or attractive than another. For instance, one institution may offer greater financial support.

Applications, often times, may be accessed on-line. They should be submitted first, along with the application fee, prior to forwarding any other supporting materials. It is not necessary to send all required documents at one time, however if you have given yourself enough time to plan accordingly, this would be the best method.

Writing the Personal Statement
Typically, prospective graduate students are required to write and submit a personal statement, or essay, as part of the application process. This is an opportunity for you to explain who you are, why you have decided to apply, and how this particular program is of interest and fits into your goals for the future. You may want to provide examples of how you made difficult decisions, triumphed over obstacles or challenges, and perhaps describing a time when you influenced others. The evaluator is trying to gain insight into your personal attributes that set you apart from the general applicant. They are looking for organization, critical thinking, and desirable traits embedded in your statement that let them know that you will be a success in the their program.

Always obtain feedback from individuals that can assist you with editing to enhance your essay. You may want to seek the advise of a faculty member that you have studied under. This interaction may be a good segue for asking this individual to provide a recommendation. Also, utilize Career Services as a resource for editing assistance. Call or come by the office to schedule an appointment to have your proposal statement reviewed.

Graduate Admissions Testing
Many institutions require prospective graduate students to complete the 
Graduate Record Exam (GRE), one of several nationally administered standardized exams. This exam is offered by paper and pencil or on-line. Depending on the discipline, you may be required to sit for an exam more specific to your professional area of study such as the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT), Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT), or Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT). Our Lady of the Lake University allows the Miller Analogies Test (MAT) for many of its programs.

When should you take the Exam? Be aware of the deadline to submit test scores with the institution in which you are applying. Exams are often offered year-round, however it may take up to six weeks to receive your results. It is best to test in the fall to ensure that you have met the deadline to begin the graduate program the following fall term.

Letters of Recommendation
As an undergraduate, you can take many steps to facilitate the process of asking for recommendations for graduate study. Create relationships with your faculty members by asking questions in class, visit them during office hours to discuss any questions you may have or to go over a test, or if possible, assist them with their research. As a result, faculty members will be aware of your intellectual abilities and personality traits to provide a positive recommendation when called upon.

You will be required to submit transcripts from all institutions attended in which classes attempted and/or completed have been recorded. Even if you only took a single class and withdrew with a “W”, it is still necessary to list the institution attended on the application and submit a transcript.

Order transcripts early, and be sure to find out if a fee is required. Typically, Transcripts are required to be sent directly to the institution, not hand carried.

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